Winter Tales Begin: Madame Von B.’s story

Every year, from the beginning of December until Epiphany, I like to share some winter tales — stories to tell or to read around a warm fire on a cold dark night, preferably with a steamy hot drink to wrap your hands around. This year I’m starting the series a little differently, by sharing a few “true” ghost stories, rather than explicitly fictional tales.

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I’m taking these stories from Catherine Crowe’s 1858 book, Ghosts and Family Legends: A Volume for Christmas. Those of you who have read the adventures of Vera van Slyke in Tim Prasil’s Help for the Haunted know that Mrs. Crowe’s The Night Side of Nature was Vera’s trustiest reference tome. Ghost and Family Legends was Mrs. Crowe’s sequel, in a way: a collection of true (or at least truthy) anecdotes told around the fire over a course of a week at a December house party in 1857. Anonymized, of course, because who wants to admit to believing in ghosts?

“But there are no ghosts now,” objected Mr. R.

“Quite the contrary,” said I; “I have no doubt there is nobody in this circle who has not either had some experience of the sort in his own person, or been made a confidant of such experiences by friends whose word on any other subject he would feel it impossible to doubt.”

After some discussion on the existence of ghosts and cognate subjects, it was agreed that each should relate a story, restricting himself to circumstances that had either happened to himself or had been told him by somebody fully entitled to confidence, who had undergone the experience.

True ghost stories can be fun to listen to, but they don’t always make the best reading, since real life doesn’t always follow the classic eight-point arc (or three-act structure, if you prefer) of fiction. Many of the anecdotes in the collection are really only fragments. I’ve selected three of the more complete tales to kick off the Winter Tales season this year. First off: Madame Von B.’s story.

Madame Von B. tells her story on the second evening. It’s not really her story, it’s a story told by Madame’s maid Françoise, about Françoise’s brother Benoît, a woodsman or forest warden to the estates of a French nobleman. One of Benoît’s privileges is permission to gather dead wood from the nobleman’s forest to sell for firewood.

“‘You remember,’ she said, ‘that the prince was so good as to give Benoît all the dead wood of the forest—and a great thing it was for him and his family, as you will think, when I tell you it was worth upwards of two thousand francs a-year to him. In short, he was growing rich, and perhaps he was getting to think too much of his money and too little of the bon Dieu—at all events, this privilege which the prince gave him to make him comfortable, and which made him a great man amongst the foresters, has been the cause of a dreadful calamity.’

Yup, Benoît got a little too greedy…

This one reminds me a bit of an M.R. James story, with a mysterious cloaked stalker, antique artifacts of a sort, and ghostly karmic punishment. Short, but satisfying.

You can read Madam Von B.’s story here.


A list (with links) of the winter tales I’ve shared in previous years is on my Winter Tales page.

Image: Telling Christmas stories by the fire, circa 1903. Source: New York Public Library Digital Collection

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